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In the News
Report From Haiti
January 25, 2010
VIDEO -- Correspondent Martin Smith's interview (Jan 21) on PBS Newshour. Smith's team is producing an in-depth report which FRONTLINE will air in the near future.
DISPATCH -- Below from co-producer Marcela Gaviria (1/20/10)
The nights of Port-au-Prince are pitch black, yet filled by a cacophony of sounds. After sunset, you can hear the sound of thousands of refugees singing hymns as they lull themselves to sleep on the debris and trash strewn streets. As the night sets deep, the sounds of howling dogs and C-130s, landing and taking off, takes over.
Aunt Fifi's home in Delmas 5, our modest base which sits perched above the airport, rattles every time a plane flies overhead. But then this morning at 6:03 am, just at sunrise, when the sound of hooting owls and crowing roosters was picking up, the earth growled -- and then our house rattled. The perfume bottles on the crowded dresser drawer clinked together, the windows shook, and in a matter of seconds, everybody in the house was bolting towards the courtyard.
There have been over sixty aftershocks since the earthquake hit Leogande January 12th. But this one registered 5.9. Another earthquake -- a small one. The epicenter over 30 kilometers away.
At a makeshift camp just down the hill, scores of refugees panicked. Their cries carried up the street. My housemates, two Haitian brothers whom I know from New York, a photographer, and a group of young nurses from Orlando, Florida, wondered if the wall next to us would withstand another tremor.
A few miles away, in the upscale neighborhood of Petionville, a Portuguese journalist was so startled by the quake, he jumped out his second floor window. I learned that hours later from a nurse at the University Hospital near Champs du Mars. Nurse Betty told me he was the first journalist to be evacuated from Haiti. He's now being treated on the USS Comfort which sits just off Haitian shores.
At the University Hospital, the quake caused another sort of panic. Fearing that the already unstable main building would collapse, hundreds of patients were moved to the outside courtyard. Now, every inch of open space is cramped with rickety beds, soiled mattresses and provisional cots. It's a sea of amputees, bandages steeped with yellow pus. Flies and trash everywhere. And yet there is little moaning. These patients have survived a quake, have withstood being trapped under rubble for hours, days. They've lost loved ones. One patient says of his stump, "C'est la vie."
The inner courtyard is shaded by a few large oak and mango trees. Sheets have been tied together to provide some shade. There is a woman trying to breast feed her newborn baby. An old man with soiled underwear. A teenager with silk pink pajamas stained with pus from her amputation at the shoulder. A young boy, stares at his bleeding stump. A man comforts his baby girl who has lost both her legs. A woman taps me on the shoulder. She implores me in Creole to find some help. Her son has already lost his leg above the knee. His other leg is swelling up, the skin parting. Another amputation imminent.
The number of patients grows by the hour. Cars arrive with victims that feared losing their limbs if they sought medical care. But they come now. They know gangrene and septicemia can take their lives. As cars zoom up the driveway, recently operated patients lying on the entrance, lean in, to avoid being grazed by the cars.
And today, eleven days after the earthquake, an 86-year-old woman has been pulled out of the rubble. She is sunken, all bones, barely breathing. Hundreds of flies, as if they could smell death, hover close. A nurse must clean the maggots off her private parts to place a foley catheter. The old woman will be flown to USS Comfort. The nurse treating her, a young Haitian woman called RN Gardine, says "The doctor says she won't make it. But who knows? She fought this long. "
The courtyard is swarming with Scientologists, flown in by John Travolta. They all wear bright yellow shirts that read "Something can be done about it." They take pictures of the wounded and of each other. A young man documents their every move with a Sony Camcorder. They talk to the patients in English, and get responses in Creole. They hand out literature in French. "How to clean your wound," By L. Ron Hubbard. I ask a young woman with blonde hair and a nose job if they are trained for this. "We aren't, but we'll help with anything." I ask her what her mission is. "To provide grief counseling," she says.
Walter, a trained paramedic with the New York City Fire Department, has been flown into Haiti by the Scientologists. "I'm no Scientologist" he tells me. "But this place seriously needs some help." He intends to check every patients vitals, make sure nobody is spiking a fever, but first he must clean all the trash. The place is more refugee camp than hospital. "These people worry that the hospital will fall on top of them," Walter tells me, "But they are more likely to die from a secondary infections spreading out here, than from being crushed by a wall."
Further up the walkway, the wounds are more gaping, the pain more severe. Surgeons from Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York inspect stumps. Many are wide open -- flesh, bone, tendons exposed. Dr. Alice, from Dartmouth, tells me that if infection is present, they can't suture the stump. "The infection has to drain and the dead tissue has been cleaned up before we can sew them back up." Dr. Alice has been here for seven days. She tells me that at first there wasn't enough painkillers or antibiotics. "But it's getting better. We have most of the supplies we need," she says. Later, a doctor from Mt. Sinai comes out of the operating room and confides they've run out of alcohol to sterilize the equipment. "The operating room has come to a full stop. We need the alcohol."
The closer you get to the operating room, the more gruesome the scene. I'm too squeamish to go further. I can hear the scream.
Right next to the operating room is a tent, the equivalent of an Intensive Care Unit. A woman, with breasts exposed, foams at the mouth. An elderly man, forced to lay in the sun, moans. A beautiful young boy asks the doctor if he will ever play soccer. A young woman, paralyzed from the neck down, is flanked by a grieving family. Everyone else seems to be fast asleep, or dying.
There is one man, frail, sunken, exhausted, that looks like he is seconds from being dead. His breath is shallow, almost irregular. He is covered in flies.
Two days later we return to the hospital. I am convinced that many have died since. But there is evident progress. The hospital entryway is no longer overflowing with patients. Tents have been erected, resembling more of a MASH unit than a makeshift camp. Several patients have been dismissed. And yes, a handful or so, have died.
The frail, sunken man, covered in flies, is one of them. His body was stacked in the overflowing morgue. Until someone noticed his leg twitching. He was brought back from the dead. He now lies peacefully on a soiled cot. Flies no longer cover his torso. He breathes easily.
The doctor now calls him "Black Jesus."